Review of The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution
|EDITORS: Tallerman, Maggie and Gibson, Kathleen R.
TITLE: The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution
SERIES TITLE: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
Michael Pleyer, English Department, University of Heidelberg
The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution is an edited volume containing 65
chapters surveying a highly interdisciplinary field that has been developing
rapidly in the last two decades. The book includes a general introduction by the
editors and is divided into five parts, each preceded by an introduction
highlighting key results as well as theoretical divergences.
The volume is divided as follows: The first two parts, “Insights from
comparative animal behaviour” (I) and “The biology of language evolution:
Anatomy, genetics, and neurology” (II) deal with the evolutionary and biological
foundations of language evolution. The other three deal with theory and evidence
on how language(s) evolved and what needs to be explained linguistically and
psychologically: “The prehistory of language: When and why did language evolve”
(III), “Launching language: the development of a linguistic species” (IV),
“Language change, creation, and transmission in modern humans” (V).
Part I: Insights from comparative animal behaviour
In chapter 3, “Language or Protolanguage? A Review of the Ape Language
Literature”, Gibson concludes that apes are capable of protolanguage, but lack
the motivation to do so in the wild as well as the capacity to form higher-order
hierarchical mental representations.
Seyfarth and Cheney, in chapter 4, present evidence of “Primate Social Cognition
as a Precursor to Language.” What is lacking in other highly social primates
such as baboons or chimpanzees and bonobos, though, they argue, is a theory of
mind which built the foundation of the evolution of syntax and structured
Chapter 5, “Cooperative Breeding and the Evolution of Vocal Flexibility” by
Klaus Zuberbühler, deals with evidence of intentionality and combinatoriality in
primate vocal communication and hypothesises that the transition to speech in
the human lineage happened in the context of cooperative breeding.
De Waal and Pollick, in chapter 6, in contrast focus on “Gesture as the Most
Flexible Modality of Primate Communication.” They argue that the flexibility
exhibited by chimpanzees and bonobos in the gestural modality makes it a
promising candidate for the evolutionary platform from which language evolution
in early hominins took off.
Slocombe, in the next chapter, takes a different view and asks whether we might
now have “Underestimated Great Ape Vocal Capacities.” Their flexibility in vocal
production, she argues represents a neglected area of research.
After the previous chapters dealt with primate cognition and communication, the
next two chapters are centred around bird’s vocal abilities.
Slater examines the relevance of birdsong for language evolution as a case of
convergent evolution for some, but by no means all aspects of human vocal
communication and learning. Pepperberg offers “Insights from Parrots and
Songbirds” on the evolution of communication and language, which, she argues can
provide useful models for the evolution of vocal communication. In the section’s
last chapter, Gibson poses the following questions “Are Other Animals as Smart
as Great Apes? Do Others Provide Better Models for the Evolution of Speech and
Language?” She concludes that to date research on other animals has not
demonstrated that they exhibit the same cognitive sophistication as apes, which
therefore still present the best model of the likely cognitive capacities of the
Part II: The biology of language evolution: Anatomy, genetic, and neurology
Following the section introduction, Fitch presents an analysis of the profusion
of terms regarding ‘innateness.’ He advises that ‘innate’ and ‘instinct’ should
be avoided, but holds that the underlying concepts are still highly relevant.
Számadó and Szathmáry argue that the co-evolution of language and the brain is
still a biologically plausible scenario, even if language is envisioned as a
fast-changing ‘moving target’ as proposed, for example, by Chater & Christiansen
In Chapter 15, Diller and Cann deal with “Genetic Influences on Language: An
Evaluation of the Evidence.” However, according to the authors, our
understanding of genes and genetic networks relating to the development of the
neuroanatomical structures involved in language is only at the beginning.
Chapters 16 and 18-20 deal with neurobiological aspects of language, whereas in
chapter 17 Donald presents his theory that the representational mode of mimesis
should be seen as the crucial pre-adaptation for language in hominin evolution.
In chapter 16 Gibson points out that it is “Not the Neocortex Alone”, but that
“Other Brain Structures Also Contribute to Speech and Language.” Hopkins and
Vauclair, in chapter 18, show that hemispheric specialization can be found in
non-human primates as well and thus predates language. Wilkins, in the next
chapter, also demonstrates the importance of comparative neuroanatomy for an
evolutionary biology of language. Arbib, in chapter 20, presents the Mirror
System Hypothesis, according to which pantomimic imitation supported by an
integration of mirror neuron systems and other systems was the crucial step in
the evolution of a language-ready brain.
In Chapter 21, Coolidge and Wynn propose four “Cognitive Prerequisites for The
Evolution of Indirect Speech”: phonological storage capacity, recursion, theory
of mind, and executive function.
MacLarnon’s chapter, finally, summarises what the fossil record can tell us
about the evolution of features of human speech production and the potential
speech capabilities of extinct hominin species.
Part III: The prehistory of language: When and why did language evolve?
As pointed out in the section introduction, we do not have a very clear picture
of when and why the language faculty evolved, but these chapters indicate
directions in which we might look for potential answers. Cann, in chapter 24,
for example, gives a brief overview of “Molecular Perspectives on Human
Evolution.” Wood and Bauernfeind, in the next chapter, conclude – pace
MacLarnon (Chapter 22) and others – that “little, or no, reliable evidence about
the speech capabilities” (p. 271) of early hominins can be found in the fossil
In chapter 26, Mann is concerned with “The Genus Homo and the Origins of
‘Humanness.” He also sketches current debates over the “Out-of-Africa” versus
“Multiregional Evolution” models and how these relate to whether Neanderthals
possessed all attributes of modern humans such as modern cognition, symbolic
representation, social complexity and manual skills.
Wynn, in chapter 27, surveys “the Palaeolithic Record” and what the different
technologies they employed can tell us about the subsistence, cognition, and
social complexity of Palaeolithic hominins. Mithen (chapter 28) presents his
theory that “Musicality and Language” are tightly interlinked and that some form
of musical communication might even have served as a precursor for (proto-)
language. The potential “Linguistic Implications of the Earliest Personal
Ornaments”, which appeared between 100,000 and 70,000 years ago, are discussed
by D’Errico and Vanhaeren in chapter 29. The authors share the view of most
archaeologists that these beadworks can be seen as indicative of symbolic
behaviour, cultural transmission and conventions, perspective-taking, and
probably also syntactic language, which, as Henshilwood and Dubreuil (2009),
argue, requires the same recursive and meta-representational ability as
Botha, in the next chapter, however, is highly critical of archaeologists’
attempts at “Inferring Modern Language from Ancient Objects” on theoretical
grounds. He outlines conditions which successful inferences in language
evolution research must satisfy, including the use of independently motivated
‘bridge theories’, and argues that current theories of links between
archaeological artefacts and linguistic behaviour fail these requirements.
Lightfoot, in chapter 31, voices the concern often addressed by scholars within
the Generative tradition that too much in language evolution is being explained
in terms of natural selection, something he terms “Natural Selection-itis”.
Instead, he pleads for the consideration of language properties as exapted
accidental by-products as well as emerging from not very-well understood “deep,
physical principles that affect much of life” (p. 315).
Falk presents her “putting the baby down” hypothesis in chapter 32, according to
which vocal interactions between early hominin mothers, who were using both
hands for foraging tasks, and infants lying on the ground were the stepping
stone for the evolution of protolanguage.
De Boer also considers the relationship between “Infant-Directed Speech and
Language Evolution” in chapter 33. He concludes that caretaker-child interaction
and infant-directed speech might have played an important role in language
evolution and continue to do so in language acquisition. However, they do not
explain the emergence of the full semantic and syntactic complexity of language,
which has to be accounted for by other factors.
A developmental perspective on language evolution is also taken by Locke in
chapter 34, arguing that the uniquely human developmental periods of childhood
and adolescence should be taken into account in theories of language evolution
and that “Displays of Vocal and Verbal Complexity” which functioned as
indicators of genetic fitness might have played an important role in the
development of vocal learning and protolanguage.
Gibson, in chapter 35, argues that major, tool-dependent changes in foraging
strategies might have played a significant role in language evolution.
In chapter 36, “Gossip and the Social Origins of Language”, Dunbar presents his
theory that language evolved as a form of ‘vocal grooming’ which made possible
social bonding and group cohesion on a much larger scale than found in other
primates (~150 vs. ~50). Fully grammatical language then evolved in the context
of other social requirements such as the exchange of social information,
reputation management, and the identification of group members.
Knight and Power, chapter 37, deal with the necessary “Social Conditions for the
Evolutionary Emergence of Language.” Their explanation centres around female
solutions to male-female reproductive conflicts over access to resources and sex.
Part IV: Launching language: the development of a linguistic species
The editors describe this section as the most “immediately ‘linguistic’” (p.
353) in that it deals with the central properties of language and their
cognitive foundations that have to be accounted for in language evolution research.
Anderson (chapter 39), contrary to Lightfoot (chapter 31), maintains that the
human faculty of language has been shaped by natural selection in the same way
as other complex biological systems and that the Baldwin effect has likely
played an important role.
In “The Origins of Meaning” (chapter 40), James Hurford presents the main points
of his book-length treatment of the topic with the same name (Hurford 2007). He
argues and presents evidence that there are precursors to both conceptual and
pragmatic meaning in other animals, but that crucially the emergence of language
enabled the creation of new kinds of meaning. For language to launch, however,
we had to go beyond the cognitive foundations found in other animals, and
develop capacities such as being able to share intentions (cf. Tomasello et al.
Corballis, in chapter 41, considers the possible “Origins of Language in Manual
Gestures.” His views are also shared by de Waal & Pollick (chapter 6), Arbib
(chapter 20), and Tomasello (2008), but as the editors note, this is (still) a
minority view in language evolution research. Somewhat consistent with this
view, however, Harnard in chapter 42, proposes that categories grounded in
sensorimotor experiences and pantomime supplied the crucial grounding for the
emergency of fully symbolic language.
Drawing on his highly influential 1997 book (Deacon 1997), Deacon discusses the
importance of “The Symbol Concept” and the complexity of semiotic reference in
theories of language evolution in chapter 43.
Burling, in chapter 44, argues that “Words Came First” and presents possible
“Adaptations for Word-Learning,” which include our evolved capacity for the
storage of a lexicon, learning a phonological system with contrastive features
as well as an elaborate syntax.
Chapters 45-47 deal with Phonetics, Phonology, and Morphology, respectively.
In chapter 45, Studdert-Kennedy considers “The Emergence of Phonetic Form”,
discussing evidence from child development and computational models. Similarly,
MacNeilage, who like Studdert-Kennedy sees the vocal, not the gestural domain as
the evolutionary platform for language, deals with issues surrounding “The
Evolution of Phonology.” These include the relation between phonological theory
and innateness, phylogenetic models of speech production such as MacNeilage’s
Frame/Content Theory, and the relationship between speech perception and
Carstairs-McCarthy, in “The Evolution of Morphology”, argues that morphology,
which is not found in all human languages, still is to be considered as a
biologically, not only culturally, evolved property of the language faculty.
Tallerman, in chapter 48, poses a fundamental question: “What is Syntax?” and
discusses the syntactic capacities that are held to be universal.
Proto-syntactic capacities can be found in other animals, but hallmark features
of syntax such as grammatical functions, displacement, semantic
compositionality, and functional vocabulary have not been demonstrated in any
Bickerton, in the next chapter, focuses on “The Origins of Syntactic Language”
more explicitly. He summarises and criticises three proposed scenarios for the
origins of syntax: cultural invention accounts, catastrophic accounts and
adaptive accounts. He also discusses theories on the sequence of syntactic
evolution, often treated as possible windows on early syntax. Finally, he also
briefly proposes that when the first words appeared, the primate brain was
already equipped for assembling them into hierarchical structures, and that this
served as the selection pressure for the evolution of other cognitive processes
A particularly controversial question is addressed by Carstairs-McCarthy, in
chapter 50, the question whether some languages are more or less complex than
others. He considers cases such as Creoles, Riau Indonesian, Second-Language
speaker’s ‘Basic Variety’, Pirahã, and artificial languages, arguing that the
debate about differing linguistic complexity has much to contribute to language
Tallerman, in chapter 51, discusses a similarly controversial topic: the concept
of “Protolanguage”, a hypothetical pre-linguistic communication form of early
hominins. She examines whether protolanguage was compositional, holistic, or
musical, while strongly criticizing the latter two proposals. She also discusses
to what extent protolanguage can be seen as continuous with primate calls and
Finally, in the section’s last chapter, Cedric Boeckx deals with “The Emergence
of Language from a Biolinguistic Point of View.” Boeckx presents current
Generative theorizing on language evolution in light of the Minimalist
Programme’s attempts at minimizing innate UG-components and finding general
computational laws involved in the constitution of the language faculty.
Part V: Language change, creation, and transmission in modern humans
After the editors’ introduction, Heine and Kuteva analyse the role of
“Grammaticalization Theory as a Tool for Reconstructing Language Evolution.” By
looking at the development of linguistic forms over historical time, they argue,
inferences can be made about earlier stages of language in prehistoric time.
As a representative of the usage-based and Cognitive-linguistic point of view on
language evolution, Bybee sees “Domain-General Processes as the Basis for
Grammar.” According to Bybee, language should be conceived of as a dynamic,
construction-based, and situated phenomenon supported by capacities such as
neuromotor automation, chunking, categorization, inference-making, and
cross-modal association instead of a static set of algorithmic rules detached
from meaning and context. This view also has implications for language
evolution, because it suggests that only after thoroughly considering the
evolutionary role of domain-general abilities and the processes of
grammaticalization and cultural transmission should we consider possible
Roberge, in the next chapter, deals with “Pidgins, Creoles, and the Creation of
Language.” He critically assesses the use language evolution scholars have made
of these ‘mediums of interethnic communication’ of differing complexity and
cases of language creation. He cautions that these cases of ‘communal language
creation’ differ in important ways from the likely course language evolution
took in pre-modern humans, but that they might still offer important insights.
In chapter 57, Goldin-Meadow asks “What Modern-Day Gesture can Tell Us About
Language Evolution.” She demonstrates that manual gesture plays a role both in
communication and thinking. She also states that it is equally suited as a
combinatorial mode of representation as oral language, which is indicated by
emerging as well as conventional sign languages and home sign systems. However,
the manual modality might surpass the oral modality in its ability to serve as
an imagistic representational format, which might be the reason that in modern
humans, manual and gestural modalities function as an integrated communicative
system allowing for both compositional and imagistic modes of representation.
Based on linguistic geography and palaeodemography, Nichols, in chapter 58,
finds it unlikely that there was “A Single Ancestral Language for All Humanity.”
Instead, she argues that there was a gradual evolution of various pre-languages
into fully modern languages in diverse populations with considerable linguistic
diversity from the very beginning.
Combining genetic and linguistic analyses, Pakendorf is concerned with
“Prehistoric Population Contact and Language Change” in chapter 59. She offers a
case study of this phenomenon in Siberia, and argues that language contact has
likely been an important factor in the evolution of language.
Chapters 60-63 deal with the role that the creation of linguistic forms and
cultural/social transmission might have played in the evolution of language.
They also demonstrate the growing importance of various forms of modelling in
language evolution research.
Kenny Smith first shows “Why Formal Models are Useful for Evolutionary
Linguists.” He argues that computational and mathematical models allow us to
test the results of a given set of assumptions that a particular theory makes.
As Smith points out, recent work in the field tries to test predictions made by
formal models empirically in the laboratory (e.g. Kirby et al. 2008), and also
tries to bring the assumptions modellers make about learning into contact with
Arguing that “Language is an Adaptive System”, Kirby also explores “The Role of
Cultural Evolution in the Origins of Structure.” Language can be seen as the
result of three interacting complex adaptive systems: individual learning,
socio-cultural transmission and biological evolution. To explain the evolution
and structure of language, we have to elucidate and explore the contributions
and relationships of these three systems. As Kirby argues,
computational/robotic, mathematical, and experimental models will play an
important role in understanding language as a complex adaptive system emerging
from cognitive/linguistic, social, and biological interactions.
Cangelosi presents current research on “Robotics and Embodied Agent Modelling of
the Evolution of Language,” which are used to investigate the evolution of
pre-linguistic signalling behaviour, social coordination, as well as the
emergence of shared lexicons, referential capabilities and even syntax.
According to Cangelosi, one of the advantages of these approaches is that by
being able to incorporate linguistic and cognitive/sensorimotor properties in an
agent, they take seriously recent advances in the field of ‘embodied cognition’
and invite an interdisciplinary dialogue with empirical areas of research.
De Boer asks what role “Self-Organization”, i.e. “the spontaneous emergence of
order in a system,” (p. 613) might have played in language evolution. This
process is currently explored in mathematical analyses and computer simulations.
Explanations based on the emergence of order in a system offer the advantage
that they reduce the need to explain aspects of language as due to specific
adaptations through biological evolution instead of relying on more general
cognitive mechanisms also found to a large degree in other animals.
Chapter 64, by Graf Estes, explores one such cognitive mechanism important for,
but not specific to language: Statistical learning, which, as the author shows,
is employed by infants and young children in the acquisition of words and
syntax. Graf Estes sees this research as supporting the hypothesis, espoused by
Christiansen & Chater in the next chapter, that language has evolved in a way
that is adapted to the statistical learning biases and constraints exhibited by
The proposal to see “Language as an Adaptation to the Human Brain” is explored
more fully by Christiansen and Chater in the last chapter. They argue against
the assumption of a Universal Grammar because linguistic conventions change too
rapidly for biological evolution to incorporate them into the genome. Instead,
they hold that the languages are shaped by an interaction of cultural creation
and transmission and multiple cognitive and biological constraints of the human
brain. These include constraints from thought, pragmatic constraints, cognitive
mechanisms of learning and processing as well as perceptuo-motor factors.
As pointed out above, over the last two decades language evolution has grown as
a field characterized by a high degree of interdisciplinarity and differing
perspectives. The last major overview volume is now almost a decade old
(Christiansen & Kirby 2003) and language evolution research has continued to
proliferate at a stunning rate. Therefore, The Oxford Handbook of Language
Evolution, much wider in scope and more ambitious than its predecessor in
spirit, is a highly commendable and much needed volume that brings together the
most important theories and research relevant to this highly interdisciplinary
I fully share the hope of the editors that this handbook – among some other
recent publications (Fitch 2010; Hurford 2007, 2012) – “will be a standard work
of reference for years to come” (p. xi). What is especially commendable about
this volume is that it tries to incorporate, and be accessible to scholars and
students from, the many different “disciplines that contribute pieces of the
language evolution puzzle” (p. xi), as the editors put it. Another highlight are
the six comprehensive introductions preceding the volume and each section,
respectively, in which the editors summarise the key points, discuss how the
research contributions presented in the individual chapters can be related to
each other or whether they present conflicting perspectives, and also outline
outstanding issues and problems.
As is the nature of handbooks, it can always be argued that particular topics
should have received more attention, and that some influential scholars in
language evolution are not represented enough. Michael Tomasello’s recent work
on differences in social cognition and motivations in young children and
non-human primates and the evolution of language (e.g. Tomasello 2008) would be
an example here, although his theories are discussed in a number of chapters
(e.g. by Gibson in Chapter 3, Hurford in chapter 40, Tallerman in chapter 51.).
It is quite possible, however, some of these perceived omissions are due to the
fact that a number of invited authors “sadly, felt unable to take the time to
write for a general audience” (p. xi).
Two final issues warrant mention. It should be noted that, like the other
concerns raised here, they by no means diminish the overall worth and importance
of this contribution to language evolution research.
Firstly, some contributions do not directly enough engage key questions of
language evolution and especially the origins of language. This holds to some
degree, for example, for Fitch’s essay on the concept of innateness (13), and
some chapters in Part V, such as Heine and Kuteva on grammaticalization (54),
Pakendorf (59), and Graf Estes (64) on “Statistical Learning and Language
Acquisition.” Although these chapters deal with topics highly relevant to
language evolution, they at times do not outline their application to the
central question of what evolved in language and how in enough detail. Regarding
language acquisition, the volume as a whole might have benefited from a more
complete account of the key cognitive capacities and acquisitional processes
involved, and how these relate to the question of how language evolved.
Secondly, some critics might argue that, as articles in an introductory
handbook, some of the chapters, for example the ones by Bickerton on the
evolution of syntax (49) and by Tallerman on protolanguage (49), could have
presented the controversial issues they discuss in a more balanced and
non-partisan way without rejecting certain positions in such a decisive manner.
The editors should be commended though, for also including some of the more
recent and still-developing perspectives in language evolution research, such as
Chater & Christiansen’s (65), theory of language as an adaption to the brain and
the Cognitive-linguistic and usage-based perspective on language evolution,
which is represented by Bybee (55) and also discussed in a number of other
chapters, e.g. by Tallerman & Gibson (1), Cangelosi (62), and Chater &
Christiansen (65) (see also Pleyer 2012).
Overall, the Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution is a landmark publication in
the field that will serve as a useful guide and reference work through the
entanglements and pitfalls of the language evolution jungle for both experienced
scholars and newcomers alike.
Christiansen, Morten H. & Simon Kirby (eds.). 2003. Language evolution. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. The symbolic species: The coevolution of language and
the brain. London: Penguin Press.
Fitch, Tecumseh. 2010. The evolution of language. Cambridge: Cambridge
Henshilwood, Christopher S. & Benoît Dubreuil. 2009. Reading the artefacts:
Gleaning language skills from the Middle Stone Age in Southern Africa. Rudolf
Botha & Christ Knight (eds.). The cradle of language. Oxford: Oxford University
Hurford, James R. 2007. The origins of meaning: Language in the light of
evolution I. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hurford, James R. 2012. The origins of grammar: Language in the light of
evolution II. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kirby, Simon, Hannah Cornish & Kenny Smith. 2008. Cumulative cultural evolution
in the laboratory: An experimental approach to the origins of structure in human
language. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 105.
Pleyer, Michael. 2012. Cognitive Construal, Mental Spaces and the Evolution of
Language and Cognition. Thomas C. Scott-Phillips, Monica Tamariz, Erica A.
Cartmill & James R. Hurford. (eds.). The evolution of language. Proceedings of
the 9th conference on the evolution of language. Singapore: World Scientific.
Tomasello, Michael. 2008. Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Tomasello, Michael, Malinda Carpenter, Josep Call, Tanya Behne, & Henrike Moll.
2005. Understanding and Sharing Intentions: The Origins of Cultural Cognition.
Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28(5). 675–691.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Michael Pleyer is a PhD student at the English Department of the University
of Heidelberg and the Heidelberg Graduate School of Humanities and Social
Sciences. His PhD project is on “Perspective and Perspective in Language
and Cognition: A Cognitive-Linguistic and Cognitive-Developmental
Approach.” His research interests include Cognitive Linguistics, Language
Acquisition, Perspectivation and Construal, Social Cognition, and the
Evolution of Language and Cognition. He has a blog, Shared Symbolic Storage
(http://sharedsymbolicstorage.blogspot.com), and is also a contributor to
the academic group blog A Replicated Typo (http://www.replicatedtypo.com),
which deals with the evolution of language, culture, and cognition.